God is angered by habitual sin because it harms His creatures. Therefore He may even punish or discipline His children in order to break the injurious habit. However, there is no cosmic “necessity” for sin to be punished “in order for” God to be “satisfied” or “propitiated” or for sin to be “atoned for.” And in any case this would be superfluous since all humans die as a penalty for their sins anyway, even those for whom Christ “especially” died. God has no personal or “moral” need to vent His wrath somehow in order to legitimize or make possible His forgiveness, pardon, or remission–no, not even to “exhibit His holiness”!
The most telling argument against every vindictive theory of atonement is the nature of sin itself. Sin is a violation, transgression, trespassing, infraction, or invasion of the sovereignty or property of another person…or even the inclination thereto. The Torah was given through Moses in order to expose the existence of sin, but the penalty or “wages” of sin, i.e., death, existed in the world even before Moses, obviously (Rom. 5:12-14). This Law simply defined some prime generic boundaries of sovereignty and authority, the violations of which were sins. But the root of sinning is craving, covetousness, or lust. And the reason for this condition is our deficiency of life, wholesomeness, power, and glory. Human craving motivates us to sacrifice the possessions of others to satisfy our own needs for life, wholesomeness, power, and glory. This disposition is not only destructive of peace or harmony in society, it is ultimately futile since we can only acquire lasting and satisfying life, wholesomeness, power, and glory directly from God the Creator. Although God is certainly pleased when humans withdraw from sinning, regardless of motives, He knows that ultimately the habit or practice of committing sins cannot be broken unless we can somehow trust that He can and will “repay” us if we repent of our behavior. This makes possible a less compulsive lifestyle, one that inspires the flow of goods from inward to outward, from egocentric to exocentric. For the desire of God is that we learn how to love one another so that we sacrifice our own possessions for the good of others. Accordingly, He pours out His love in our hearts by giving us His extraordinary gift of Wholesome Spirit in recompense for Christ’s suffering of unjust abuse.
God’s Proclamation of His Kingdom is perfectly suited to accomplish this feat of generating trust. It is the narrative of His astonishing, miraculous reversal of the unjust sentence of death against His only-born Son, even after the sentence was carried out to gory completion! Yet this Resurrection was only the appropriate climax of a long recorded history of Jehovah’s behavior of covenantal faithfulness, trustworthiness, or troth; He had proven true to His voluntarily contracted promises of lovingkindness, benignity, and favor to all who trusted Him. It is precisely such trust that pleases Him. It motivates our actions of love that restore and maintain peace and prosperity among people. It is our core confidence that even as He overcompensated Jesus for his gratuitous sacrifice of his existence for our sake, so He will “repay” us for our kindnesses, generosity, and goodness to others, even at great expense to ourselves. It is this kind of trust that creates authentic human community, and even restores it when it is fractured. God’s indignation continues to burn against stubborn sinfulness and cannot be averted by nominal “satisfaction,” vicarious or otherwise. The sin must itself be cleansed, erased, released.
The blood of Jesus Christ is said to accomplish sin-removal for it symbolizes the sinless existence of God’s own Son poured out voluntarily in surrender to unjust and violent forces, yet repaid in vast overabundance of resurrectionary life, wholesomeness, power, and glory, in a word: of Wholesome Spirit! This is the rightful inheritance of all who trust Christ as the true unveiling of God’s heart. The blood of Jesus pinpoints how God deals with sin in its core meaning: by dealing the death blow to Death itself! The murderous Crucifixion of God’s Son justified God’s invasion of the planet with life superabundant and free, with all its accompaniments, but first to him! For this was the rightful due (dikaioma) of Christ for the enormity of the crime done to him. The earnest of our future full inheritance of God’s Kingdom–the miraculous power of the Wholesome Spirit of life, present even now with amazing gifts from on high–materially shatters our fear of death by its inner witness and powerful disposition toward life and against our mortal flesh and its lusts. Such fear of death played into Satan’s hands, arming him with the incentive that stirred up our cravings and bore vicious fruit for Death. But if we need not fear death because Christ’s promise of agelong life was confirmed by God’s raising him from among the dead so that we may likewise firmly expect permanent return to life, with undiminishable wholesomeness, power, and glory, in spite of death, then we are really free to spend ourselves for Christ’s mission in spite of worldly (i.e., lesser) threats. We know our sins are washed away, thus God’s anger finds no target in us. His discipline still comes our way, to be sure, but it comes from a Father as correction so that we become fully mature in love, whereupon fright of God disappears (1 Jn. 4:17-19), and we may ourselves start “to avenge every disobedience” (2 Cor. 10:6), our own obedience having been completed. [4/22/96]
There seem to be three reasons why God’s people suffer evils: 1) as the general fallout of the disruption of the world by sin, 2) as disciplinary action by our Father in heaven to lovingly correct the ways of His sons and daughters and future heirs on earth (here we see even the curses of the covenant enacted for our benefit, even though they bring sorrow for a season), 3) “for the glory of God” (Jn. 11:4, 2:11, 9:3-5, 24-5), that is to say, so that in the midst of the darkness that descended on the world through sin, God Himself may accredit His Son, Christ Jesus, by manifesting the light of His own astonishing justice/righteousness in avenging or reversing by way of overcompensation the evils that bring suffering and sorrow. Hence the Gospel-illuminating function of signs and miracles. They light up by their attention-getting, out-of-ordinary, creation-restoring, and generally amazing character, the truth of the Proclamation of Christ and his teaching about God’s Kingdom. They shine all the more brilliantly against the dark backdrop of the covenantal evils triggered by our sins.
It is clear from Scripture that the Wholesome Spirit’s super-ordinary powers from on high are given to those who trust Christ in order also to confirm to them God’s pardon of their sins which, in the face of the abiding conditions of our covenant-held experience of created reality (blessings, curses, and all!) we might otherwise find hard to believe! For it is all too easy to slip into the despair of suspecting that our sufferings are due to God’s wrath and lack of forgiveness. Much rather, God brings these things to us “as sons,” to discipline us in the directives of His Son, Jesus Christ our Master, so that we come to full maturity and stature (see Hebrews and Ephesians) as daughters and sons. The ultimate clincher of this truth is in seeing Jesus, who suffered in obedience to the directive of his Father and in His favor (Heb. 2:5-10) not under His wrath. For it is clear that this suffering was “for the credit of God, that the Son of God should be accredited through it” (Jn. 11:4), not for his sins. And he is our paradigm! Christ did indeed, to be sure, suffer a curse of the Law of Moses, but he did so unjustly, as a Son in obedience to the desires of his Father, and hence totally in God’s good graces, not under His wrath or righteous indignation in any sense whatsoever. So in return, God requited him superabundantly with life overflowing. We urgently need to know this startling truth so that we carefully link God’s hand of covenantal discipline with His heart of Fatherly favor and not with His wrath against the stubbornly distrustful. We must not imagine that a vengeful fury lies behind God’s correcting, reprimanding strokes upon His erring children. [5/22/96]
The Book of Acts shows how serious God is about getting the Proclamation of His favor out to every person possible. He did radical things to get the Message to the Jews in Jerusalem at Pentecost, to Cornelius, to Lydia, to Macedonia, to the Philippian jailor, to the Ethiopian eunuch, Jewish and Roman authorities, Mediterranean islanders, etc., etc. This book potently proves God’s enthusiasm about getting this saving Proclamation to those most open and receptive, and the lengths to which He is determined to go to facilitate it. This post-Resurrection era of redemptive-history gets kicked off with an astounding inspired chronicle of God’s all-out effort to seek and salvage every last person whose heart He knows to be ready to hear the Truth.
This must be our answer to everyone who asks the perennial question, “How could a good God condemn the ‘heathen’ who have never heard the Gospel?” The truth is that God resorts to miracles and mighty acts of power to reach all whose hearts are soft and open to truth. He even uses evils for good by letting them “soften up” people for their ultimate salvation. Both shocking evils and miraculous goods are employed, often in tandem, to gain leverage for the message of salvation in this present darkness. In fact, the good sometimes even overcompensates for the prior evil as a sign of God’s future judgment, pre-announced openly and graciously in Christ’s Resurrection. [5/28/96]